The Clippers have very few questions going into the 2019-20 season. They have star power, a ton of depth, veterans with playoff experience, a great coaching staff with championships on their resume, a brilliant front office, and an owner with deep pockets. On paper, this is easily the best team in franchise history, and should be the best team in the NBA. There’s reason for excitement among Clipper faithful.
However, there are still areas of doubt heading into the season, perhaps the biggest of which is the center position. Simply, is incumbent starting center Ivica Zubac ready to take the next step and be a truly impactful starter for L.A.? Yes, the Clips have great insurance in Montrezl Harrell, who plays a hybrid PF-C role despite being only 6’8” on a good day. But for the Clips to take the Larry OB this season, having a true rim-protecting big that can score in the paint, defend, not get in foul trouble, and maintain health is crucial. Most importantly that player can’t get schemed out of games in the playoffs. Right now, we don’t know if that’s the case.
The evidence against Zu lies in last season’s playoff performance. Essentially, Ivica was completely cut out of the series by the smaller, quicker Warriors. He was a healthy scratch in two games, and while he started three of the four he played in, only averaged 9.8 minutes, 5.0 points and 5.5 rebounds. His saving grace statistically was in a blowout Game 3 loss where he put up 18 points and 15 rebounds in garbage time. It was an impressive statline, but in a 27 point loss, was utterly irrelevant. Take that away, and Zu only made one field goal in the other three games. To sum it up, Zu was not a factor in the playoffs for L.A.
Is it bad that the starting center who helped the Clippers go 18-9 after they traded for him couldn’t stay on the floor in a first-round playoff series? Yes. However, Zu did give fans reasons to be optimistic heading into this season. The Clips were immensely better after the trade deadline, despite trading leading scorer and rebounder Tobias Harris, partly because Zu was a much better defender and rim-protector than Marcin Gortat or Boban Marjanovic. His agility, 7’4” wingspan, effort, and solid instincts helped the Clippers improve drastically inside.
The Clippers former starter (Gortat) held a -6.5 net rating and 112.5 defensive rating — Zu put up more points and rebounds per game, and held a 1.8 net rating and a 104.7 defensive rating. His impact defensively was immense.
After the arrival of Ivica Zubac via trade from the Lakers, the most used Clippers lineup was Beverley-Shamet-Shai-Gallinari-Zubac. It had a 103.4 DRtg and +9.3 Net Rating in 255 minutes. Zubac was a big part of that. Zubac's mere presence inside changed their defense. https://t.co/rrpMDbYg71— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) July 10, 2019
Offensively, Zubac still has work to do. He was better than Gortat and Boban offensively as well, but the limitations were noticeable. Zu has trouble catching balls in traffic and doesn’t have a variety of moves he can go to down low, which can make him invisible at times. He relies mostly on open dunks, drive dump-offs, and some hooks in the lane — on which he’s inconsistent. However, throughout his first three seasons, he has shown steady improvement in most facets offensively — culminating in a career year scoring last season. As a 22-year-old, all you can ask for is a player getting better consistently.
Some tidbits that help his case: Zu shot 60% on shots from less than five feet. He also showed a decent ability to stretch to 10-12 feet and knock down jumpers, as he shot 50% from 10-14 feet last season. He averaged a career high in offensive rebound percentage and generally showed great chemistry with the Clipper guards. He moves his feet well, he knows his spots, and despite not being as good of a screener as Gortat (which is hard to do), Zu was definitely adequate in the pick-and-roll. Overall, the fundamental basis of a solid offensive player is there. Now, can he take that next step?
The Clippers had a mild predicament when it came to Zubac this summer, who was a restricted free-agent. Their obvious goals were to get Kawhi and an accompanying superstar to make this team championship contenders. However, after re-signing Patrick Beverley and Rodney McGruder, the team shelled out a four-year, $28 million deal to Zu, showing little hesitation. Was it an overpay? Probably. $7 million a year is high for someone who has yet to prove himself on a big stage. On the other hand, to secure a potential multi-year starter who still has room to grow and can help guard big-bodied centers in the West like Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic, it’s worth it. Zu is officially locked up for the future — all signs point to him starting most games at the five for L.A. Can the Clippers rely on him to be a starting center on a championship team?
For this to be a reality, Zu must show even more improvement in year four. In the new NBA, everyone on the floor needs to be able to shoot. In an effort to expand upon his range, Zu has been working diligently on his three-point shot. There have been videos of him nailing three after three in workouts this summer. He has a good looking stroke but has been hesitant in the past to unveil this part of his game. In talking with Jovan Buha of The Atlhetic, it seems like Zu is ready to take that next offensive step.
“I took that (three-point shooting) seriously,” Zubac told The Athletic. “I worked on it really hard. It’s gotten so much better and it’ll get even better before the season starts. … I’m gonna be ready if they need me to shoot it.”
While it seems unlikely that the Clippers would need Zubac to fire away much from three, it’s nice to know that it could be a part of his arsenal and could give L.A. some more variety in the half-court.
Another area that Zu can definitely benefit is strength. For a center to bang in the post night-in, night-out, having a solid frame is imperative. To be frank, Zubac came into the league a little doughy, which effected his stamina and playing time. Last summer he said on Instagram that he had lost about 20 pounds off his rookie weight of 265. While getting better wind, and dropping baby fat, helps, putting on muscle this offseason would be of even greater benefit. Ivica sometimes looked timid in the paint, struggling to finish through contact and go up with the ball in traffic. Against bigger centers defensively, Zu would tend to lose rebounding position via box-out, and would get bumped below the basket a lot, leading to some easy scores. Adding strength in his upper and lower body would help tremendously and ensure more time on the floor. Thus, becoming more reliable.
The Clippers M.O. all of last season was their ability to finish games. It didn’t matter who started, we all knew that Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell were going to be in during crunch time getting buckets and making plays. When you really break it down, it’s important to get out to good starts in games, but it’s more important to finish them. More than likely, Ivica will not be closing games. The depth at the center position is not great, so an injury to that position could really be painful, but if health remains, Zu will only be counted on for 17-24 minutes a game, most of which will reside in the first, second, and third quarters. This takes pressure off of Zu’s monstrous shoulders. If he is there in crunch time, L.A. can count on great rim-protection and defense and let the star power around him kill it. There is also a possibility that the Clippers will fill their roster out with a backup center, or give time to rookie Mfioundu Kabengele to eschew depth questions that persist at the five.
I’m a believer in Ivica Zubac. He’s super young, he’s continuously gotten better, he’s expanding his game, and he wants to be in L.A. (a hard place to play for the less confident). I’m also a believer in this franchises’ belief in Zu. He’s already shown he can play good minutes for a good team in the regular season, and made L.A. better when he arrived. If he can continue to fine-tune aspects of his game, get stronger, and remain healthy, he should be a stalwart of the Clippers this year. Expect a nice season from Zubacca.